When we last left the gang at Sterling-Cooper, the firm was being acquired by a parent company in England. Meanwhile, Don Draper’s own affairs continued to get muddier as he and his wife started drifting apart but returned together as she got pregnant. Peggy Olson, the other REAL protagonist, continues to rise up the ranks and push imperfectly to find herself. She had to give up a child, and finally Pete Campbell – who was the inseminator – got to hear it from her.
This third season of Mad Men could be called the series’ strongest season yet – but that is hard to say. Moreover, this is definitely the season where a lot of the threads started to pay off. Some of the social forces and interactions that were threatening to invade their worlds do so – and the impact on the corresponding interactions and whatnot is at its most fascinating. Some specific observations (click on links for Season 1 and Season 2 reviews):
- Really the stories seem to revolve around agency. Betty is still pretty darn weird – but the lack of agency she feels makes sense. After all, she was raised to be a housewife or whatever constitutes virtue for a gal raised in the 40s/50s. She is a daughter, then Don’s wife. She owns NOTHING, and she is clearly unhappy. However, with so few outlets to get anything done, both socially and actually – consider the advice she gets about divorce (she is pretty screwed without consent). Her acting out makes sense.
- On the other hand, the catalyst for her making a move with Don was one of the stranger sequences of the year. Indeed the entire world (within this framework) reaction to the Kennedy Assassination was one of the most significant storylines of the season. That Betty would be shaken by it makes total sense, but Betty’s emotional reaction and the transition to her own life, all of that rang false. Part of it is the necessary simplifying about how large events drive personal ones – but most of it is January Jones’ poor acting.
- Of course at the center of this is what has to be the central scene of the entire series to date – where Don confesses his reality – the whole thing – to Betty. Her reactions here seem false, but I think a lot of that is poor acting choices more than anything. She does not seem appropriately blown away by what Don says – and yeah while he does lie a lot, it is hard to make up a whopper like this. The lack of tenderness she showed as he actually did pour his soul out seems to belie their relationship. She seems very cold to me here. Of course my wife has not revealed that she has stolen a breast cancer victim’s identity back in Northern Ohio – so what do I know?
- The question of agency also lingers with Joan, the well endowed Christina Hendricks. For her, it is at home trying to stand by a man who is doing his residency and trying to become a full time surgeon. At work – she has all sorts of power as head of the secretarial pool and office manager. There is agency there, but at home she has to try to stand by her man, and fit into a paradigm – including leaving Sterling Cooper. Her farewell of course leads to the most surprising and funny surprise of the whole season. The horrible special effects were a great touch.
- Peggy is fighting uphill still – she DOES have ownership of her life. It has been hard though. In the way that she still has to keep having people take her seriously – and she is pretty clearly the best creative there of Don’s minions. Alas, her personal life seems to have a lot of bad decisions – although the show forgets to circle back on her affair with Duck. The dynamic between Don and Peggy is very interesting – Don clearly is very fond of her work, but is also capable of cruelty – especially when she tries to stand up for herself.
- It really is Don’s ugliest side – aside from possible alcoholism (though that describes a lot of the ad men) – and it hurts to watch him be cruel and short to folks like Peggy only because we see how complicated and unhappy his situation is. He has reserves of tenderness and sadness – but when a woman comes close to having control, to “speak her mind” Don snaps back. Really Don clearly has issues with losing control over his life and his narrative. When he snaps back – it is not pretty.
- Still, the lawnmower – wow.
- The main business of course with Sterling Cooper was the pending sale and reforming of the firm. How all that unfolds is one of the neat episodes of the season. Of course it (somehow inevitably) involves Joan being in the right place at the right time. I am still surprised so much of the band stayed together.